Skip to main content

Nuremberg: The Fall Of The Supermen

May 2024
28min read

Even as the horrors unfolded, it seemed difficult to connect them with the shabby figures in the prisoners’ dock. And yet, these contemptible shadows had once been among the most powerful and corrupt men on earth. In a rare view from the bench, the U.S. judge at the war crimes trial of the twenty-one top Nazis records the last chapter of their evil careers. It is adapted from Mr. Riddle’s forthcoming autobiography. In Brief Authority , to be published by Doubleday this fall.

On the twentieth of November, 1945, the trial began “in a high solemn moment of extreme importance!’ as the Soviet member, General I. T. Nikitchenko. put it. Geoffrey Lawrence, the British member, made a brief statement before the indictment was read as required by the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (it took nearly two days to read it in four languages).


On the twentieth of November, 1945, the trial began “in a high solemn moment of extreme importance!’ as the Soviet member, General I. T. Nikitchenko. put it. Geoffrey Lawrence, the British member, made a brief statement before the indictment was read as required by the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (it took nearly two days to read it in four languages). “It is the duty of all concerned,” he said, “to see that the Trial in no way departs from those principles and traditions which alone give justice its authority and the place it ought to occupy in the affairs of all civilized states.” Everyone was impressed with his dignity and sincerity; and the sense of authority—so thoroughly British in quality—that he brought to the courtroom largely accounted for the orderly days in court that followed. “Incidents” had been feared, but there were none. Germans were used to bowing their heads to authority.

The chief American prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson of the Supreme Court, made an eloquent and moving opening statement. The wrongs here condemned, he began, were so devastating that “civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand ol vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.” We must never forget, he continued, “that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. If these men are the first war leaders of a defeated nation to be prosecuted, they are also the first to be given a chance to plead for their lives in the name of the law.” The duty of the Tribunal, he said, was to apply the sanctions oi’the law to those who were guilty of the crimes charged. Civilization “does not expect that you can make war impossible. It does expect that your juridical action will put the forces of international law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace, so that men and women of good will in all countries may have ‘leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the law.’ ”

Sir Hartley Shawcross, when he opened the British case on December 4, emphasized individual responsibility: “The State is not an abstract entity. Its rights and duties are the rights and duties of men. Its actions are the actions of men. … Politicians who embark upon a war of aggression should not be able to seek immunity behind the intangible personality of the State.”

To me, FranÇois de Menthon’s summary of the French case was more interesting than any, and in many ways more moving: more interesting because he sought to distinguish and to understand the German soul within the dark atmosphere of German action; more moving because he thought and spoke of Germans as members of a group to which all human beings belonged. The philosophy of the National Socialist party, he argued, had logically resulted in a war of conquest fought without respect for any human values. The vast organized criminality sprang from “a crime against the spirit,” which aimed to plunge humanity back into barbarism—it was not the spontaneous savagery of a primitive race, but a reaction conscious of itself, utilizing for its ends the material means put at the disposal of mankind by contemporary science.

This doctrine, de Menthon pointed out, was based on the monstrous theory of racism. Its end was the absorption of the personality of the citizen into that of the State, and the intrinsic value of the human being was finally denied. Anyone whose opinions differed from the official doctrine was asocial and unhealthy. Humanism was condemned as decadent. Reason was replaced by the romance and the virility of war; violence became the test of manhood. National Socialism in modern Germany, he concluded, was the “ultimate result of a long evolution of doctrines,” raising “inhumanity to the level of a principle.”

General R. A. Rudenko, presenting the Russian case three weeks later, talked of crimes in the Slavic countries. He referred to the defendants, doubtless for some semantic reason of his own, as “Hitlerites” and “Fascists”—never as “Nazis”—with “the morals of cannibals and the greed of burglars.” The prosecutors, he ended, were presenting the defendants with “a just and complete account which must be settled.”

Of the defendants Hermann Wilhelm Goering was by far the most kaleidoscopic. He would occasionally forget himself in a blaze of anger. For so gross and heavy a human being he could move with extraordinary quickness. He sat in the corner of the defendants’ box, a rug across his knees, the double-breasted light gray uniform of a Reichsmarshal that he had designed for himself now faded and baggy, and without decorations.

All the witnesses had to pass near him as they left the courtroom. When one German general who had given particularly incriminating evidence left the stand, Goering, leaning across Hess, remarked to Ribbentrop in a clearly audible voice: “That’s one we missed after July 20” (July 20, 1944, when an attempt to assassinate Hitler failed and many anti-Nazi officers and aristocrats paid with their lives). And when another prosecution witness, Bach-Zelewski, a high ranking SS general formerly in command of antipartisan warfare on the eastern front, had finished testimony about the terrible atrocities committed there, Goering was suddenly on his feet. He spat in the face of the witness and shouted “ Schweinehund! ”—then seated himself, straightened his tunic, and beamed jovially at the military police who had rushed up. There was nothing to do.

On occasion Goering could be coolly and politely insolent, deferentially impudent. It was no wonder that this attitude—sly and quick and skillful—should irritate the cross-examining prosecutors. Once Jackson was crossexamining him about the minutes of the working committee of the Reich Defense Council in 1935, which contained a phrase translated as “preparation for the liberation of the Rhine.” Goering suggested that Mr. Jackson had made “a great mistake.” The phrase had nothing to do with any contemplated occupation of the Rhineland; it meant simply that the river should be kept clear in case of mobilization for defense against attack from the west, or from the east for that matter.

Jackson : You mean the preparations were not military preparations?

Goering: Those were general preparations for mobilization, such as every country makes.

Jackson: But were of a character which had to be kept entirely secret from foreign powers?

Goering: I do not think I can recall reading beforehand the publication of the mobilization preparations of the United States.

The answer was really innocuous, and Jackson should have let it pass. But he lost his temper. For some time Goering had been trying to put him off balance, and had finally succeeded. It was a long cross-examination, lasting a couple of days, and Jackson, already overburdened and tired, was feeling the strain. He made the initial mistake of not holding his witness psychologically and never letting him go. He should never have dropped his eyes from Goering’s face. Instead, he kept occasionally looking at his notes while the witness was answering, as if he were not thoroughly prepared, and the impact was lost. (On the other hand, one of the British prosecutors, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, held on like a bulldog; held on without ever noticing the witness’s impertinence, his sallies, his wit and sneers, which gradually died down; held on the way Edward Carson held on to Oscar Wilde during that famous trial, while Wilde laughed at him and the spectators egged him to further witticisms; held on until Wilde made his first break, and Carson had him against the wall, stammering and broken.)


“I respectfully submit to the Tribunal that the witness is not being responsive,” Jackson appealed to the bench. It was “futile to spend our time if we cannot have responsive questions … this witness has adopted an arrogant and contemptuous attitude toward the Tribunal which is giving him the trial which he never gave a living soul.” He asked that the witness be instructed to answer the questions yes or no, and leave explanations to the end of his testimony. I suggested to Lawrence that just then was a good time to recess, not to give an immediate ruling, and to let things cool off overnight. VVc adjourned—it was almost the usual time—and met in chambers. We were all of the opinion that witnesses after answering should be allowed to explain their answers at once—the usual practice—and not have to wait until the examination was over.

After the recess Jackson, profoundly upset, came to see me and my alternate, John J. Parker. He said we were always ruling against him, and intimated that I went out of my way to oppose him. He thought he had better resign from the trial and go home. We did our best to soothe and mollify him, to stroke his ruffled feathers by telling him how much we all admired him and how well he was conducting the trial.

At the time I thought it was merely his irritated reaction to Goering’s calculated and telling impudence. Later I became convinced that some more enduring sense of failure or of disappointment haunted him. Missing some subtler value, he may have tried in vain to persuade his ambitious heart that the externals were all that counted. It is not improbable that appointment as Chief Justice of the United States would have eased that brooding misery. But I do not think any achievement would have altogether banished it.

In the eight years that followed Nuremberg, Jackson came nearer than he ever had to finding a serenity of mind that filled most of his conscious being he loved his work on the Court, and his work was of a very high order thoughtful, lawycrlikc, and wise. He was deeply admired by the bar. His pungent style, personal and fresh, would frame his opinions for later generations. And if that was not enough it was a good deal. Only when his face was in repose did the inner light disappear, and the commonplace settle in, as if the emptiness had been waiting at the edges of his vitality.

Dr. Horace Greeley Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s onetime minister of economics, was a witness of a different kidney. Wrapped in a Teutonic self-esteem which fitted him like a pair of suede gloves, he remained cool, never surprised, disdainfully self-reliant. He listened to each question, very straight and stiff in his five-inch collar, looking over and beyond the others, occasionally breaking into English. He sounded more like a professor reproving an overeager pupil than a prisoner fighting for his life. Had Mr. Justice Jackson taken a course in economics in school? Perhaps if he, Schacht, explained in simple language. …

He hated Goering with a scornful, jealous bitterness, for it was Goering who had forced him out of power. Goering, Schacht said, in an interrogatory, endowed by nature with a certain geniality … was the most egocentric being imaginable. The assumption of political power was for him only a means to personal enrichment and good living. The success of others filled him with envy. His greed knew no bounds. His predilection for jewels, gold, and finery was unimaginable. He knew no comradeships. … In his personal appearance … one could only compare him to Nero, [appearing at tea oncej in a sort of Roman toga and sandals studded with jewels, his fingers bedecked with innumerable jeweled rings … his lace painted and his lips rouged.

And, Schacht added, his competence in the economic field was nil.

Frau Schacht, writing to her husband like any wife to any husband, told him that she was very well, only the toilet was out of order. She continued: “The prosecution speeches are terribly boring. All the Congo bestiality is being rehashed. Instead of the Gestapo and the SS being convicted here, the government, general staff, and even our brave G.I.’s [ sic , in the translation] are being thrown into the same pot. Only Hitler and his cronies are deserving of death. A German court would have been better. … Take care of yourself, darling.”

Cross-examination of course varied from nation to nation, and it was natural that the French should be less good at it than the British and Americans, for it is not a French technique. The Russian idea of cross-examination was to read a long incriminating question and then expect the defendant to admit everything. Thus the Soviet prosecutor, General Rudcnko, cross-examined Alfred Rosenberg, the chief philosopher of the Nazi party and the Reichsminister for Hitler’s vast empire in eastern Europe.

Rudenko: Do you admit that Nazi Germany, having prepared and pursued war against the Soviet Union, aimed at plundering the economic riches of the Soviet Union, the extermination and enslavement of her people, and the disarmament of the country? Answer briefly.

Rosenberg: No.

Rudenko (with sarcasm) : You deny it? All right. Let us turn to a new document.

The Russians were used to co-operation from a defendant in their own country, and were rather put out by what, among themselves, they probably referred to as the careless preparation of the Americans. It was not to be expected that they would understand our judicial practice when the purposes of their trials were so different. The Russian trial must conform to the policy of the state, not oppose it. When, for instance, Rosenberg’s lawyer applied for leave to call a witness to prove that the Soviets had employed slave labor practices in Latvia, Volchkov, the Russian alternate, was genuinely shocked that we should even listen to such a suggestion. To him it was libelous, and he said so: obviously libelous because it was an attack on his nation’s sovereignty.

The Katyn Woods incident was typical of the Russian attitude. The inclusion in the indictment of the allegation that the Germans had massacred eleven thousand Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, on the banks of the Dnieper near Smolensk, was dictated solely by political considerations. Since there was no evidence that any defendant was remotely connected with the killings, the charge was irrelevant. Although he had not seen the reports indicating that the Russians themselves might be guilty, Jackson sensed trouble, and did his best to persuade them to omit the charge. But Rudenko insisted on including it, leveling the charge against Goering as the highest-ranking officer among the defendants. In addition to reciting in detail the report made in 1944 by a Soviet commission, he produced three witnesses to establish German guilt. This took a week. When Rudenko had concluded, Goering’s counsel petitioned the Tribunal to allow testimony showing that the Russians had killed the Polish prisoners. Rudenko indignantly opposed the motion.


When we came to consider it in chambers, General Nikitchenko threw all his weight behind the Soviet prosecutor. It was obvious that he attached great importance to our decision. I do not think that many things were expected of him by his superiors in Moscow, but there can be little doubt that they were eager to have the Tribunal brand the Germans as the perpetrators of those systematic and sordid killings.

We had permitted the Russians to introduce the hearsay evidence of their own self-serving report, and to support it with eyewitness testimony. The rest of us could not see why we should not allow the Germans direct evidence in their defense. The Soviet general’s argument —and he spoke with conviction for a solid hour—was based on a phrase in the Charter which provided that the Tribunal need not require proof of facts of common knowledge, and that it might take judicial notice of official government documents for the investigation of war crimes. Under this wording the Russian report was obviously admissible. But the phrasing of the Charter was in this case unfortunate; it coupled “facts of common knowledge” with “government documents,” and in the Russian translation the two phrases might have interlocked.

Since government documents had been given special treatment, the Russian member argued, and recognized for what they were—statements of the true facts—how could their contents and conclusions be denied? We had no right to disregard the Tribunal’s Charter, to flaunt its provisions.

For a time it seemed possible that Nikitchcnko would withdraw from the Tribunal. And yet I thought he would not; he was too far committed, and such an action would appear an admission of guilt. But whether he bolted or not, we must let the defense call its witnesses, who, on behalf of the International Medical Commission formed by the Germans, had examined the corpses on April 29 and 30, 1943, two weeks after the discovery of the bodies of four thousand Polish officers, in uniform, in some cases shackled, with pistol bullets in the back of the neck. (The rest of the victims were never accounted for.)

We announced our decision the next morning. The Russian prosecutor immediately filed a petition for a rehearing of the question. During the entire trial, it was the only petition for reargument we received. Its language was somewhat intemperate: the court, Rudenko claimed, had misconstrued the Charter, violating its duty, and was grossly in error. The petition followed Nikitchenko’s argument and indicated his co-operation.

The occasion warranted action. At our conference the next afternoon I asked my confreres to permit me to speak on a matter of the most vital importance to all of us, in that it concerned the integrity of the members of the Tribunal, their honor, and their competence.

The brethren were by now giving me their attention.

One of the prosecutors—I looked at General Nikitchenko—had filed a slanderous, arrogant, and unwarranted attack on the Tribunal, a body that would go down in history as the most important court in the world. I did not know what the practice would be in other countries. In mine the author of such an outrage would be cited for contempt. Perhaps in this very extreme case we should send him to prison immediately—there could be no defense.

“What do you think, General? Have you read General Rudenko’s petition? What do you propose should be done?”

General Nikitchenko was taken off base. Hc mumbled that he had read the petition, but rather hurriedly. He had nothing to propose. The French were amused—they guessed what I was up to. The British were surprised- they had not been consulted.

I produced an opinion, drafted with a good deal of care the night before. With permission of the members I would read it. It could be read in open court immediately before General Rudenko was arrested.

I read the opinion. It denied the contention that government reports should be accepted as “irrefutable evidence of the facts found"—a contention “unsupported by the Charter and intrinsically unreasonable in itself.” The Soviet prosecutor was in gross error in his construction of the Charter.

After a good deal of discussion, it was agreed—with the Soviet member’s dissent, which called the opinion “flagrantly” in violation of the Charter—that the opinion should be filed but not made public. The presiding judge would simply announce in court that the petition had been dismissed. Nikitchenko no longer argued that German witnesses should not be called. His whole energy was directed to keeping the opinion of his three fellow judges from the press. He took seriously my suggestion that Rudenko be held in contempt; and as part of the “compromise” it was understood that no such action should be taken. He was pleased with the result. Two hours after we had adjourned, I got a pleasant note from him indicating that we understood each other—would I visit his country after the trial? He evidently had grasped the purpose of my tactic after he had had time to think.

The doctors called by the Germans were vigorously (though without damage to their position) cross-examined by the Soviets. But from that day on we heard nothing more about Katyn Woods. The Soviet prosecutor failed to mention these atrocities when he summed up the case against Goering. The evidence before us was inconclusive, and, as I have said, was unrelated to any defendant. Any mention of Katyn Woods was omitted when the judgment was under consideration.

But the careful investigation conducted by a committee of the United States House of Representatives in 1952 left little doubt that the Soviet NKVD had been guilty of the killings, as a step in the “extermination of Poland’s intellectual leadership . … to eliminate all Polish leaders who subsequently would have opposed the Soviet’s plan for communizing Poland.” The officers, many of them former professional men, government officials, and intellectuals, were captured when Russia invaded Poland. Fifteen thousand in all, they had been separated from the other prisoners and placed in three special camps, where they remained from the fall of 1939 until the following spring. During this period they were exhaustively examined to determine whether they could be converted to Communism. A few hundred were. The rest were presumably killed. It was testified that Stalin’s son, when asked about the disappearance of the Polish officers, said: “Why those were the intelligentsia, the most dangerous element to us, and they had to be eliminated.”

Perhaps no incident better illustrated the Russian attitude toward the trial than one that occurred early in 1946. It seemed that important visitors were constantly arriving in Nuremberg, among them the Soviet delegate to the United Nations (and onetime prosecutor in Stalin’s infamous purge trials), Andrei Vishinsky.

Jackson gave him a large dinner at the Grand Hotel. After the usual flow of speeches and liquor, Vishinsky rose to his feet, genial, faintly bibulous, expansive. Vodka, he said, was the enemy of man, and should therefore be consumed. He wanted to propose a toast. He raised his glass, and we got up; and now he spoke very fast, so that it was hard to follow the interpreter: “To the German prisoners, may they all be hanged!” The judges, not quite taking in what he said, touched their lips to the champagne. But it did not take long for them to realize what they had done.

Parker came to my room that night to talk about it. It was awful , he thought. He hadn’t understood. He wrmlrl not he able to sleeo. thinking about it.

I tried to brush it off, saying that no one had noticed what we did, it was a triviality that would be forgotten tomorrow—the essential was our approach to the prisoners. So far, that had been fair.


“Supposing Drew Pearson gets hold of it? Can’t you see the heading: American judges drink to the death sentence of the men whom they arc trying. …”

“Anyway, we’re both in the same boat, John,” I ventured.

“But you don’t seem to care,” he ended, shaking his head, looking at me mournfully. …

The Germans relish hierarchical distinctions, as conveyed by the long handles to their names. They like to record their doings and catalogue their possessions. At the notorious Mauthausen camp in Austria, they carefully registered the killings—and even recorded the fictitious causes to which they were attributed. Rosenbcrg’s title and the meticulous manner in which he recorded his activities were typical of these two Teutonic impulses. He was known officially as “Delegate to the Fuehrer for the Total Supervision of Intellectual and Ideological Training and Education of the Party.” Under his careful direction the Einsatzstab Rosenberg, organized to collect, arrange, and distribute plundered art objects, drew up a catalogue of sixty-eight volumes, beautifully illustrated, handsomely bound. On April 16, 1943, writing to his Fuehrer on the occasion of the great man’s birthday, he reported in a brief “preliminary” manner the art-seizure action. He enclosed three volumes of “the provisional picture catalogues,” and hoped “that this short occupation with the beautiful things of art, which are so near to your heart, will send a ray of beautv and iov into vour careladen and revered life.”


Adolf Hitler’s ghost haunted the courtroom; we could all see its outline, standing contemptuously at Goering’s elbow; frowning at Schacht as he spoke of the Fuehrer’s enormous reading, of his juggling with his knowledge, of his diabolical genius as a mass psychologist. Julius Streicher, the Jew-baiting journalist who had been thoroughly under his spell, described Hitler emerging from a threehour speech in the Munich beer cellar in 1921 “drenched in perspiration, radiant.”

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel was impressed with the great man’s knowledge of operations, of strategy, of organization, of the details of armament, of the equipment of all the armies, of the classic authorities on the science of war—Clausewitz, Moltke, Schlieffen. But General Alfred Jodl, summarizing his views in a last speech, said that the Wehrmacht was confronted with the impossible task of conducting a war they did not want, under a commander they did not trust, to fight a war with troops and police forces not under their command- by no means an inaccurate description.

We watched the defendants day after day, these drab men once great, most of them now turning on the Fuehrer who had led them to their brief spasm of violent triumph. A few were still loyal. Some felt that it was not “correct” to attack a dead man who had been head of the state. Others transferred their guilt to the man who, they said, was alone responsible, from whom, they pleaded, orders came that had to be obeyed; theirs but to do or die, they argued; how could there be a conspiracy, a meeting of the minds, as the prosecutors claimed, when one man’s mind commanded all the others? …

Before long there developed, among the twenty-one accused, two groups under different leaders. The majority, particularly at first, before the worst of the testimony came out, followed Goering, from whom still emanated something of the old charm, the compelling ruffian power. Goering sustained the vanishing legend of the Reich, the intoxicating dream of a superior race that in the early days had clouded their minds and swollen their hearts with the excitement of the primitive, the barbaric romance of lawless men.

The prison psychologist, Dr. G. M. Gilbert, described the two rival groups in his book, Nuremberg Diary. He was with the prisoners constantly, talking to them between sessions of the Tribunal and in the evening. Dignity and stoicism was Goering’s line, or at least a part of it, for he was a many-sided actor: the man of culture, bully, hunter of big game, buffoon, hero, mountebank; brilliant, eloquent, funny; tough, realistic (particularly in the eyes of the weak men), his vision even in his last days playing with the great future of a New Germany.

He detested, he asserted, anything that was undignified, but wished they all had the courage to confine their defense to simple defiance. And the others would laugh when he said: “Aggressive war? Ach! Fiddlesticks! What about the grabbing of California and Texas by the Americans? That was plain aggressive warfare for territorial expansion. When it is a question of the interests of the nation, morality stops. …” And his audience would nod, and smile; and their sense of guilt seemed less hard to bear with this comforting assumption that all nations were alike.

But there was a second group who despised Goering. Jodl pictured Goering in the last two or three years of the war as disappearing from time to time, hunting, collecting art treasures, living his soft life at various castles. Admiral Erich Raeder, in a statement made while a prisoner of the Russians, said that “the person Goering had a disastrous effect on the fate of the German Reich"; that his vanity was unimaginable, his ambition immeasurable. He was always showing off, running after popularity—untruthful, selfish, greedy, jealous. The oldline diplomats, Baron von Neurath and Franz von Papen, considered Goering a bully and an upstart, and referred to him as “the fat one.”


Goering liked to play one defendant against another, intriguing with these forlorn shadows as he had intrigued when they were great with power. When Ribbentrop had finished testifying, Goering whispered to Raeder: “He’s all washed up.” But, when the Tribunal recessed, he congratulated Ribbentrop on his performance. He could threaten his companions as well as encourage them, and most of them were afraid of him. When Albert Speer testified that in April, 1945, Hitler had told him that he had known for some time that Goering had failed, known that he was corrupt, known that he was a drug addict; and yet, cynically caring nothing for what might happen to the German people, had said that he was willing to let Goering negotiate the capitulation, Goering was furious. In a manner calculated to have Spccr overhear him, he told some of the defendants in the dock that even if Specr came out of the trial alive, the Feme would assassinate him for treason, meaning the Femegerichte , the secret and brutal kangaroo courts organized after the First World War to punish persons suspected of informing on those working for the secret rearmament of the Reich. Speer laughed a little nervously when he repeated this in his cell to Gilbert.

Testifying, Goering was at his very best, speaking twenty-one hours on the stand without notes, touching lightly but effectively on his own youth—his father had been an intimate friend of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa; he had been the top German ace in World War I after von Richthofen was killed. He described in detail the demoralized and poverty-stricken Germany that he and his comrades returned to when the First World War ended. Germans had never had experience of a democracy, they did not want one; and in any event, the Allies deserted the Weimar Republic after it had been foisted on the country. The German principle had always been authority from above downward, and responsibility from below upward. Was it not natural that, looking about for patterns to follow, they should select two outstanding models? He paused, and let his eye travel over the bench. “The Roman Catholic Church,” he continued, “and the U.S.S.R.”

If Hermann Goering was the prime exhibit of Nazi evil, Albert Speer was the most humane and decent of the defendants. His straightforwardness and honesty, his calm and reasonable bearing, his awareness of the moral issues involved, impressed the members of the Tribunal. Speer, who was forty-one when he was tried, must have been a highly impressionable young German, idealistic and prone to hero worship, when he joined the party in 1932. Soon he became Hitler’s personal confidant, and lavished a passionate admiration on his chief, if one can judge by the denth and bitterness of his ultimate disillusion.

A man of striking ability, Speer took charge of all war production. He was one of the few men trusted by Hitler. It was not until the last days that Speer began to question the character of his leader. Doubts had of course begun to cross his mind; but, working continually at his immense production job, aloof from the chicaneries and plots that eddied around the seat of power, he seemed, like so many other idealists, to have been unwilling to face a reality which was bound to destroy the faith that had meant everything to him.


Unlike the other men in the dock, he cared about Hitler primarily because he believed that the Fuehrer had led the German people out of their despair and impotence, and placed their feet on the path to recovery of national greatness. Speer was serious, deeply thoughtful, without humor, patient, his shoulders bowed under the shame of his people and the moral degradation to which he had helped to lead them. It was no wonder that hatred burned between him and Goering.

In the prison and in the lunchtime recess and when the defendants exercised, the moral struggle continued. Goering wanted the Nazi myth to persist. Even if they were to be found guilty, they could go down to posterity as heroic Übermenschen —supermen. He cornered poor, cowardly little Walter Funk in the exercise yard and told him he must reconcile himself to his fate, that he must stand by Goering and die a martyr’s death. He need not worry because some day—even if it took fifty years—the German people would rise again and recognize them as heroes, and even move their bones to marble caskets in a national shrine.

But little Funk was not the martyr type, and cared little about what might happen to his bones. He blubbered a good deal. “I assure you,” he confided to Dr. Gilbert, “I don’t have the stuff for heroism. I didn’t then and I don’t now. Maybe that is the trouble.” “I always came up to the door,” he testified wistfully, “but was never allowed to enter.” He was an unimportant little man. As president of the Reichsbank, he had made an agreement with Himmler to receive for deposit and handle the gold and jewels and currency that the SS brought in. “I was never told about gold teeth placed in my vaults,” he whined on the stand. “How was I to know they included teeth wrenched from corpses?” Great carloads of the personal belongings of murdered Jews were brought to the bank from Auschwitz and Mauthausen; and there they were neatly sorted and arranged. The jewels and watches were sent to the Municipal Pawn Shops; the gold which had been extracted by a special detachment of SS men from the teeth of the corpses before they were cremated and the gold spectacle frames, to the Prussian mint, where they were melted into bars and returned to the Reichsbank. The notes and coin stayed in the bank. A systematic banker, little Funk. …

Day after day, as the trial went on, the horrors piled up—tortures by the Gestapo in France; “experiments” on prisoners, who died in agony; the gas chambers; the carefully planned liquidation of the Jews- hour on hour the twenty-one men in the dock listened, and the shame spread. Documentary films of concentration camps, showing bulldozers piling up huge stacks of naked, unidentifiable bodies, clearly unmanned most of the accused. After one day’s evidence, the radio propaganda chief, Hans Fritzsche, was physically ill in his cell. And after the onetime Governor General of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, took the stand to make his cheap, dramatic confession—”a thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased”—Schacht observed to Gilbert that Goering’s united front of loyalty and defiance seemed to have collapsed.

Speer tried in his testimony to destroy the Nazi legend forever. He prophesied that after the trial the people of Germany would despise and condemn Hitler as the proven author of her misery. The world will learn, he said to us, not only to hate dictatorship, but to fear it. For the totalitarian system in the period of modern technical development can dispense with all subordinate leaders, and mechanize them into mindless, uncritical recipients of orders. The nightmare of many a man that one day technical developments might domineer entire peoples had merely been realized in Hitler’s totalitarian system … The more technical the world becomes, the more the counter-balancing influence of the advancement of individual freedom and the individual’s awareness of himself is essential. … This war ended on the note of radiocontrolled rockets, aircraft developing the speed of sound, new types of submarines, torpedoes which find their own target, of atom bombs, and with the prospect of a horrible kind of chemical warfare. … In five to ten years this technique of warfare … will be able to destroy one million people in the center of New York in a matter of seconds with a rocket operated, perhaps, by ten men. Invisible, without previous warning, faster than sound, by day and by night [science] can spread pestilence among human beings and animals and destroy crops by insect warfare. … It is not the battles of war alone which shape the history of humanity, but also, in a higher sense, the cultural achievements which one day will become the common property of all humanity. A nation which believes in its future will never perish.

Speer had finished. He looked at us, and beyond us. Then very quietly he said, as if to prevent himself from sobbing: “May God protect Germany and the culture of the West.” There was a long silence in the courtroom.

What about the other defendants? They were an assorted lot, perhaps hardly typical of the German people; most of them were small men who had once strutted in great places, men whose weaknesses may have attracted them to Hitler. There were ruffians like Ernst Kaltenbrunner—”a bony and vicious horse” Rebecca West called him—who had succeeded the assassinated Reinhard Heydrich as chief of the Security Police, and who knew, as he said, that the hatred of the world was directed against him now that Himmler was no longer alive. A descendant of farmers and scythemakers, Kaltenbrunner stood six feet four, with the deep purple welt of a dueling scar across his face from ear to chin that seemed to swell and glow as he lied under cross-examination, denying his own signature when he was confronted with it, lying so palpably that his associates in the dock turned away from him the next day when they filed in. Even the pariah Streicher kept his face averted.


At one end sat Schacht in his tall collar and impeccable glow of self-righteous conceit; at the other, Julius Streicher, round-shouldered and moth-eaten, chewing gum, mumbling to himself, mean and sullen, mouthing his neurotic obsession about the Jews. None of the other defendants would talk with the lewd, sadistic Streicher. “A dirty old man,” Rebecca West said of him, “of the sort that gives trouble in parks.” In his paper, Der Stürmer, which was devoted to anti-Semitism, he had advocated “castration for race polluters.” For Streicher, his trial was a “triumph of world Jewry.” He believed himself a man whom destiny had placed in a position to enlighten the world on the Jewish question. He was certain that three of the judges were Jews, and practically the whole of the prosecution. They got uncomfortable when he looked at them, he claimed, for he could always recognize the blood.


There was Hess, who once had been the number three man, his eyes sunk deep into the sallow cavern of his face, his reading ranging from Edgar Wallace to Goethe to Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat , a bony scarecrow, wearing the same black field boots that he had worn on his famous “mission for humanity” when he proposed to the startled Duke of Hamilton what seemed to him such a reasonable solution of the war—Great Britain should hand back the German colonies and evacuate Iran, or else the Nazis would set up concentration camps and starve the population to death if the British attempted to carry on war from the Empire’s outposts after the German invasion of England. There was little doubt that Hess’ mind was rapidly deteriorating, a condition manifested by his indifference, his appearance of glazed abstraction, and his jerky, goose-step manner of walking. Although he suffered from amnesia, his capacity to follow the trial and to defend himself was not at first affected.

The defendants Keitel and Jodl were both connected with the OKW, the High Command of the Armed Forces, an interservicc organization directly responsible to Hitler as Supreme Commander. Keitel was the chief of the OKW, with Jodl immediately subordinate to him. The British historian John Wheeler-Bennett, comparing them, believed that Keitel was a man of third-rate ability, with “ambition but no talent, loyalty but no character, a certain native shrewdness and charm but neither intelligence nor personality.” Keitel particularly illustrated what “training without education” did to the German military mind. The loyalty of both generals to Hitler was automatic. But Alfred Jodl, who came from a family of intellectuals, was an individual of high intelligence and vigorous personality, who deliberately subordinated his will to the Fuehrer’s caprices and became one of his most idolatrous admirers.

Keitel looked like a cross between a battered but respectable coachman and one of the milder Anglican bishops. Obsequious in his cell, he would bow and scrape to a lieutenant. In court he sat upright and apparently composed in his shabby green uniform, stripped of decorations, always looking “correct.” Marshal Keitel kept repeating on the stand in his defense that he had absolutely no “command functions,” as if he considered that this description of his duties would absolve him of having faithfully carried out Hitler’s orders to murder and to torture. Jodl, in a green coat and light blue trousers with red stripes, gave one the impression of strength and self-control. Like so many of the defendants, his attitude toward Hitler fluctuated between adulation and contempt.

Of the two admirals, Karl Doenitz, who had succeeded Raeder as head of the Navy, was the modern, highly trained technician. Admiral Raeder, a little man of an older generation, was born in 1876, entered the Navy at eighteen, and received the commendation of the Kaiser in 1910 when he was navigation officer of the Imperial Yacht Hohenzollern . Before retiring in 1943 he had been active in building up the German Navy and in the submarine warfare; but what particularly moved the Tribunal to impose on him a sentence of life imprisonment was his successful pressure on Hitler to invade Norway, in spite of Hitler’s desire to keep Scandinavia neutral- one of the clearest acts of aggressive war in the record. Raeder was skeptical about what would happen to him; he hoped he would be shot, for at his age he had no desire to serve a prison sentence. He had already attempted suicide when in the hands of the Russians.

At end drew near and the time for the delivery of the judgment and the sentences approached, even Goering’s factitious gaiety grew thin and forced, and finally deserted him. Schacht looked tired and old, but his sang-froid never left him, and his back was like a ramrod. The tragedy of Germany had settled deep in the soul of Spcer. Little Funk cried more, and Streicher kept on howling at night. The fear of death turned Ribbentrop to parchment, drawn and sallow between the points of chin and cheeks.

The reading of the judgment, a part of it by each member, was finished on the morning of October I, 1946. Three men had been acquitted—Schacht, Fritzsche, and the wily old diplomat von Papen—and were moved to cells on the third tier. The others were waiting to hear their sentences. Fritzsche, Gilbert records, was overwhelmed: “Free … and not even sent back to Russia” (the Russians had captured him).

After a recess, the defendants who had been convicted were called to be sentenced. Standing there before us, they behaved like men. I felt sick and miserable. Wc had seen them day in and day out for a year. What right had I? . … I knew they deserved it. Goering, who was the first to be sentenced, saluted when Lawrence pronounced his fate: “Defendant Hermann Wilhelm Goering, on the counts of the Indictment on which you have been convicted, the International Military Tribunal sentences you to death by hanging.” Goering was glad that he had not got a life sentence, he later told Dr. Gilbert—those who were sentenced to life never went down in history as martyrs. How soon he would cheat the law, his thumb to his nose, pulling the phial of cyanide of potassium from some secret crevice in the folds of his vast flesh. … The slave-labor chief, Fritz, Sauckel, when he got to his cell, said to Gilbert: “Death! I have never been cruel myself. But I am a man—and I can take it…—and burst into tears. Specr thought his sentence of twenty years was fair enough; he was glad Fritzsche had been acquitted … Kaltenbrunner, sentenced to death, tried to kiss his mistress through the grille of lhe visitors’ room.

Admiral Raeder, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, petitioned the Allied Control Council to change his sentence to death by shooting—the resistance of his body was low, he said, and his imprisonment would not last very long. But the Control Council had the power only to decrease sentences. At Spandau he acted as librarian, fussy and meticulous, liking to repeat the German saying: “A disorderly ship reflects incapability.” He was fond of gardening. He was recently released, and is still living at eighty as I write this.

Twelve defendants∗ were condemned to death by hanging. Julius Streicher, a moment before he died, heilcd Hitler, and from the gallows screamed, “ Purim, 1946 !” The cruel Persian minister Haman, too, had planned to kill the Jews living in his country, twenty-five hundred years ago. But when the Emperor Xerxes heard of his intentions, Haman and his ten sons were put to death on the very gallows that had been erected for their victims.

∗Martin Bormann in absentia was the twelfth.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.